Center for Strategic Communication

Unity and Disunity

With the passing of years, I became more aware of the urgent need for unity in the Islamic action and of the fact that it is incumbent upon the mujahidin who are bounded by a pure creed to join ranks, to be more flexible in dealing with other believers, to prioritize their work and efforts, and to overcome their personal tendencies and vain desires.

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s efforts to achieve a “blessed unity” among the various jihadi groups appear to originate in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.  In the 2d edition of his autobiography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, Zawahiri discusses the failures of authority and cohesion within the Egyptian Islamic Group, what will become the inspiration for his quest for unity in the “Islamic action.”

Our experience with the Islamic Group was bitter where all efforts for unity have failed due to the insistence of the members of the Group to stick with their jailed leadership, and their excessive reverence for the first rank brothers or the big brothers as they used to call them. The second rank members inherited this reverence and passed it to those who follow next. The Group was established on that basis. They even granted those big brothers the right to take the crucial decisions leaving nothing for those who are outside but to implement general guidelines sent by the big brothers.

The “big brothers” represents here Islamic Group’s jailed leadership.  According to Zawahiri, his disagreements with IG’s Afghan-based member originated in the question of authority.  At that time IG members still saw the group’s imprisoned leadership as its direct authority.  However, Zawahiri argued otherwise. In the footnotes, he expresses his frustration with what he saw as the consequence of IG’s skewed loyalties:

1. Despite my deep appreciation of their status, the brothers in prison have no right to make decisions as crucial as these ideological retractions [their later renunciation of violence] are to the history of the group without consulting their brothers on the outside and without the approval of Dr Umar Abd-al-Rahman, the Amir of the group.

2. Accordingly, I say with confidence that the statements made by the leaders in prison reflect their stances and not the stance of the group, because they only represent a part of the leadership.

This episode shows Zawahiri exhibiting a certain pragmatism and caution toward authority, especially any authority under the direct control of an Arab dictator’s regime.  He interprets IG's later internal strife as a sign that over-reverence to authority should never trump a jihadi movement’s priorities or threaten its unity of thought.  A lesson I guess he still keeps.

The moral behind all this is to be very careful about the leadership of those imprisoned. Whatever they issue should be analyzed according to the Shari'ah, facts, and its benefit to jihad.

Their views and guidance are influences [sic] by many things, thus blindly following them might lead to disastrous outcomes.

We always wished that the Islamic Group had the unity and the blessing that God had granted to us in order to humiliate the crusader and have the honor to fight and confront them.

Zawahiri’s bucolic vision of communal life in Afghanistan transitions into these pre-9/11 days of unity.  He has clearly undergone a transformation – perhaps the result of his time in a Dagestani prison – from a young jihadi revolutionary to a dedicated member of a movement, and one of its leaders.  He’s reorganizing his priorities and his vision of the movement, displaying in these chapters a patience and pragmatism that belies the conventional characterization of him as an incompetent, puritanical egoist (see The Looming Tower).

“Unity has wonderful blessings, and no one can feel them except those whom God chose to bless,” he writes.

It is enough to sense all the joy, happiness, and overwhelming moral victory that we placed in the hearts of the Muslims and the sadness and sorrows that we sent to the hearts of God's enemies. 

From 2004-2008, I watched as al Qaeda consolidated its control over key jihadi groups such as the GSPC.  I watched the swift reemergence of the al Qaeda in Yemen in 2006-07, following the February 2006 prison break.  Al Qaeda leadership’s media efforts and calls for support of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia in 2006-07 were signs of future coordination and eventual unity.  The announcements of mergers with the small remnants of LIFG, GICM (remnants of which were said to have merged with GSPC in 2005-06) and Islamic Group.  The experience of watching this systematic consolidation always suggested to me that Zawahiri had a grand vision.  Section 3 of the pre-9/11 chapters suggest an inspiration for just such a grand vision.

In pre-9/11 Afghanistan, Zawahiri saw the benefits of unity. After the announcement of the creation of the the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, Bin Laden, Abu Hafs al-Masri, and Zawahiri spoke at a celebratory gathering.  Zawahiri’s speech focused on unity.

Then, I addressed the masses and said:

Oh Muslim youth, be as our master Abdallah Bin-Rawahah said:

“I ask God nothing but the ability to fight for my religion and my honor. I seek no benefit and no high rank, only dying as an honorable man satisfies me.”

Or as our master Hassan Bin-Thabit said: “Those who are delighted by the generosity of life join the group of horses and knights, the group of the pious supporters of the prophet who sacrifice their souls for his sake. They make people abandon their religions by their own swords and spears; they purify themselves in asceticism by spilling the blood of the infidels.”

Then I said:

On this occasion today, I remember honorable brothers who will have been delighted to be among us in order to witness such a great event. Among these brothers, I regard our great brother the martyr Abu-Ubaydah al-Banshiri; we regard him as such and God is the best to judge. Oh Abu-Ubaydah! Be delighted! The unity that you have hoped for has been achieved.

Of course, after 9/11 that unity was lost.  Al Qaeda’s members and Afghan-based sympathizers were scattered.  Ten years later, the situation never looked better for Zawahiri.  With NATO leaving Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s support network within Pakistan remains intact.  Former imprisoned supporters are walking free, and al Qaeda sympathizers express themselves freely in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, and the Sinai.  Rebel brigades in Syria display al Qaeda-like flags.  Zawahiri may be seeing that door to unity opening up for him again, and under his authority.  Not bad for a destitute, isolated man whose movement is “on the ropes."